Monday, May 4, 2020

Fourth Book Review Post, Fourth and Final Try

Note: So this post got a load of spam views from pornbots for reasons I cannot fathom (ed. TWICE! THREE TIMES! It got hit TWICE! THREE TIMES!) and it was throwing off my top posts sidebar, so I have reposted it under a new title (ed. TWICE! THREE TIMES!). All comments on the original post have been included at the end.The book list has been expanded with all the books I have read since.

I do not expect to do this again - if the porn bots want book reviews, by Jove they will have book reviews.

 Part 1 and Part 2 and Part 3


Gentlemen of the Road, Michael Chabon

Chabon is labeled a literary author and that is a bold-faced lie. This is pure adventure pulp. It's the most D&D thing written since Fafhrd and Mouser. Its the most Fafhrd and Mouser thing written since Fafhrd and Mouser. Its prose is beautiful. It's working title was Jews with Swords. It's got illustrations. It is fantastic. Just the summary is fantastic.

Amram and Zelikman go on an adventure in the 950s Caucasus Mountains and end up as erstwhile protectors of the exiled prince of the Khazars. Both of them are Jews from opposite sides of the world (Ethiopia and France, respectively), and both of them are absolute ne'er-do-wells.

It's the freshest fantasy I have read in ages despite not being a fantasy: it's a place and point of time in our world and our history nestled in the crook where vast and storied empires met, far out of the rutted path we are too often force-fed.

Chef's kiss.

The Yiddish Policeman's Union, Michael Chabon

On a dime (since I read this immediately after Gentlemen of the Road) Chabon switches modes and styles to an alternate-history noir. There's the corpse of a chess-genius heroin addict in the flophouse, bullet through his head. Israel collapsed after three months and the US leased territory in Alaska as a Jewish homeland, and forty years later reversion is months away.

The prose is just as fantastic as the setup. Notable in comparison to Gentlemen of the Road is how deftly Chabon can switch between modes - he is capable of emulating the style of the genre he is engaging with perfectly without lessening the quality of his prose, and he goes out of his way to make Sitka burst to life. Everything oozes personality. Details get stuck in your head: the Filipino donut stand. The border maven and his shop full of thread. The PBS kids' programs dubbed in Yiddish.

It's so, so good.

Wild Cards 1, various

DNF at 79%

For a good while, I was really digging this series. it was a fun mashup of pulp iconography with the consequences of a more grounded story. There were some cool powers, some cool characters, I was invested (and superhero stuff is always a hard sell for me).

But then we got to Martin's story, which is the beginning of a quartet of stories that all hinge upon the threat or application of lethal sexual violence. Four in a row, and none of this, none, was present in the first half nor was it signposted, and it evaporated any desire I had to read it further (despite the one bit by Hunter S. Thompson being a welcome relief.)

It's an absolute hackjob.

All Systems Red (Murderbot Chronicles 1)

DNF at 39%

I don't know what people see in this one. From a writing standpoint it's repetitive, from a vocabulary standpoint it's noticeably stunted, and from a plot and character perspective it is both of those things. Murderbot talks like an obnoxious early 20-something, without the benefit of being an actual person in reality that I can have some sort of connection with: they're just annoying, and the constant "I don't really care I wish I was back watching my soap operas on space netflix" is not half as charming as the author intended.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Seanan McGuire

A wonderful little modern fairy tale novella with strong narrative voice and fun characters and a sweet little romance that is utterly destroyed in the space of the last twenty pages in one of the worst examples of "the shit you were thinking?" I have ever experienced.

I have a few lines in the sand when I'm reading. One of the consistent ones is "bullies, abusers, and other people who are casually cruel for their own amusement should, at minimum, be vigorously dunked upon, and if the situation calls for it they should get the shit beaten out of them by other characters."

This story fails this line hard. Horrifically so, in a way that undermines every good thing that comes before it.

If your twin, who is already callous and cruel, who enthusiastically wants to throw away their humanity and become a vampire, tears the throat out of your beloved, what do you do?

There's the response a human being has, and then there's what the book does.

Do You Dream of Terra Two?, Temi Oh

DNF at 297/532

From a character standpoint, this book is excellent - a big cast of teenagers and I found them all quite tolerable. The alternate history elements (the first rocket was used in the Napoleonic Wars) are fun and a light touch. I have some issues with the science (A shuttle launch from Britain is a terrible idea, a colonization run on Alpha Centauri as a new home for humanity when there's plenty of room to build O'Neill cylinders is silly, why is global warming still in issue in 2012 when you have had rockets for two centuries has no one built up space infrastructure?) but it's all minor compared to how good the rest of the writing is.


You know that line I just mentioned? Happens again. Obviously and cartoonishly telegraphed badguy...

[Aside] Gonna be real, when the only white person on the crew is this aryan ubermensch looking motherfucker whose entire concept of self-worth hinges on dominating others and who openly talks about starting up a new empire...everyone else on the ship might just be an idiot for letting him on board. Like it's not a stretch of the imagination that the guy exists, its that everyone else is that blind to it. [/Aside]

...dumps another crewmember into an airlock and threatens to vent him to "teach him a lesson" and the other characters do not immediately beat the shit out of him and lock him up for court-martial. The victim even says don't tell the mission commander.

Dropped the book hard, right there.

Proxima and Ultima, Stephen Baxter

A two-parter, also about a Proxima settlement mission. Baxter's characters and dialogue leave a whole lot to be desired (the first primary character can't even be called that, he is an absolute personality blank), but he is very compelling when it comes to providing a big idea space story - I devoured these books. Part 1 has Expanse DNA, Part 2 dives into Warhammer 40k.

The big idea part got away from him at the end, I feel (if given the choice, I'd rather have no explanation than the huge expodump in the last ten pages), but the journey to get there was engaging. I'm a big sucker for a well-realized alien biosphere, and it's got both that and some offhand details implying some rather horrible goings on in the background. Those are effective, though less so when characters start explaining things. He also gets kinda obnoxious with the italicizing and restating, saying again, of non-English words.

Gets major props for fantastic execution of time-scale: the two books cover the time-span of four generations, and that's something that can cause trip-ups for a lot of stories in settings where there's interplanetary travel and no way to cheat light.

Plot it Yourself, Rex Stout

Having finished my second Nero Wolf novel I find myself with more questions than answers

A dozen plus characters are introduced all at once with very little to differentiate them, then some other events happen, and it is all tied up at an arbitrary point where a single detail is revealed in the last ten pages. Evidence is found by characters but not revealed to us until the very end. It feels terribly arbitrary and not very fun, which is sad because the characters are still just as fun as they ever have been, warts and all.

City of Brass, S.A. Chakraborty

DNF at pg 50/???

This is a good book for someone else. A young woman with special bloodline powers is swept up in a fantastic adventure by a terribly handsome and mysterious magical creature, which strikes me as the genderbent version of the manic pixie dream girl and also I really don't like relationships with such obviously skewed power dynamics. Hard pass from me, but if that thing appeals to you, it will likely bring you joy.

From a Certain Point of View, Various 

A nifty gimmick with variable results. On the whole the stories are inoffensive and blessedly short when they are not, but they tend to run into the same issue: Star Wars' own obsession with masturbatory self-hagiography. Certain individuals or events are simply so unbearably special that the entire universe recognizes and adores them.

The strongest stories, by my reckoning, were those that stayed as far away from that bullshit as they could. Things like the loopholes in Imperial paperwork or interdepartmental politics on the Death Star, or Yoda's daily life on Dagobah.

Two in particular (the Alliance flight crew chief watching the Death Star run from afar, ticking off the names of pilots she was just speaking to hours before as they are shot down; Mon Mothma reviewing contingency plans for the collapse of the alliance as she flees from Yavin) get a gold star from me, because they do the best job of showing a setting that exists beyond its characters (the ostensible point of the entire exercise) and of showing a war effort (again, the ostensible point of the entire exercise) that has to deal with things like supply shortages and logistics.

Being that this is a Disney book, there are both connections to Rogue 1 / the prequels and Disneytype attempts at inclusion and of the former I feel lukewarm and of the latter I respect the chutzpah behind the story where Tarkin shacks up with a deck trooper, but wow that is an ethical nightmare of a relationship. Star Wars is so cripplingly inept at portraying relationships that I honestly think it best to just jettison the entire thing than trying to rescue it - chutzpah alone will not do it.

Palpatine gets an entire story written as a faux-Shakespearean monologue and the author went and gave him AABB rhyme scheme instead of iambic pentameter in blank verse, and furthermore contains neither "We got Death Star!" nor "Exit, Pursued By A Bear" so I can only count this as total and absolute failure.

Sisters of the Vast Black, Lina Rather

I am a gargantuan sucker for Catholic religious orders in space, so this one scratched an itch. It's a very solid novella, slipping only in the last quarter when the final act comes around and goes Hollywood. I didn't feel like it jived with what had been established before, and the direction the plot had been going (orders from the new pope, delivered by a new priest entwined with the central authority the order has long shaken off, to go visit some unconnected colonies) felt like a better way of proceeding. Catholic religious orders in space are a really good setup for Trek-style morality plays, less so for big Hollywood explosions. Maybe double the length and the other ending and it would have been a killer novel.

The Stars Are Legion, Kameron Hurley

I was sold on this book purely by someone describing it as "lesbian cronenberg 40k", and I can say without hesitation that appellation is both very accurate and fucking awesome. It is a grotesque book, a grotty book, it is gross and creative and engaging and I devoured it raw and wriggling. At times it feels like the environments of the horrific decaying meat-moon Katazyrna were pulled directly from a blog post in the best of possible ways.

A+ gold star all hail MEAT MOON


UNSONG, Scott Alexander

I have complicated feelings about this book. Concept-wise it is absolutely in my wheelhouse: the main character got kicked out of Stanford for breaking the DRM on copywritten names of God, the sky broke open in the 60s, and the universe now runs on Kabbalistic wordplay. I'm here for it. And the book is, on the whole, clever, entertaining, often hilarious, and overall a great example of weird web outsider fiction. It was engaging (even the infodumps in the last 5%), it did justice to an obscure and obtuse central conceit in a creative way, and the web-serial pacing of copious flashbacks, asides, and intermittent stage setting chapters didn't detract much from the flow of 700+ pages.

On the other hand...

But then you leave in a quote-unqoute joke about gaining a new appreciation for Hernando Cortez after a brush with Aztec mythology and come the fuck on.

It's not the only time it happens - are regular occurrences where I think the goal was to make a joke, but it's the kind of joke that is terribly tone-deaf (example: citing Lovecraft's Nyarlathotep as prophetic of the Obama administration) and it really does nothing to counter my pre-existing conception of internet rationalists.

Like, just read the fucking room. For fuck's sake.

The other half of the other hand is that this is a book has a through-line about theodicy, and I have very large opinions about that particular subject. Opinions that would overwhelm and devour this review, so let it remain that they are very, very large, they are very, very personal, and I consider "Murder the Gods and Topple Their Thrones" to be a viable course of action.

In UNSONG the answer is, while creative, insufficient for me on these grounds (especially in light of the chapter describing Hell).

But on the overall, I enjoyed my time with the book. Such a curious thing, critique. 

EDIT 2/18/21 - It has come to my attention that my nose was not wrong in smelling something rotten in the state of Denmark. The author of Unsong is knee-deep in eugenics and all the horrific baggage that goes with the belief that you are smarter and more rational than everyone else. A few clever puns does not make that okay, no amount of puns makes that okay.

Comments from the first time around 

  1. Goblinist
    One really excellent story about a colonization mission is Le Guin's Paradises Lost. It's not part of the Hainish series, but it has many of the same themes.

    1. Dan
      Never heard of that one, but I am always down for Le Guin.
  2. Dan
    On the flip side, when a work actually does commit to the dunk you end up with Handmaid's Tale and hoo boy that show has some dunks.

    1. Dan
      So this post has over 2k views and they're nearly all bots. Go home, bots, you are clearly drunk.
    2. Dan
      I wake up and it's over 5k what the hell.

  3. Anne
    I read "Every Heart a Doorway," which started great, but absolutely did not need to be a murder mystery, especially not one where people keep dying.

    There's a reason "Sticks and Bones," and all the other novellas in this series are prequels, and it's because everyone interesting from "Doorway" only has a past, but no future.

    So I feel like McGuire makes a lot of decisions that are major WTFs from my standpoint.

  4. maxcan7
    I'm currently reading Wild Cards 1 and am basically right at the part you describe. Was hoping it would get better, that's a shame. The good ones are good enough that I'll probably keep going, I think I already own book 2 anyway, but I can't blame you for quiting.

    I'm not familiar with Chabon but both of those sound interesting I'll add them to my wishlist, thanks for the recommendations.

  5. Matt Halton
    i don't know why we can't have more authors like Chabon. i guess when he's trying to write Literature instead of just doing normal books he starts to suck more. you should read Kavalier and Clay tho

    also, have you read The Enchantress of Florence, by Salman Rushdie? that's kind of in the same thinking-man's pulp zone as Chabon. also some of Umberto Eco's work - Baudolino maybe

    these are my favourite authors fyi

    1. Dan
      I have not. I tried reading Midnight's Children and bounced off three times. If I see it, I'll give it a look.

  6. Annon #8107 
    Have you read/done a review on any China Mieville books? I'd be interested on seeing your opinions on Kraken or The City And the City. Kraken especially has some juicy Esoteric Enterprise vibes

    1. Dan
       I haven't read any Mieville yet.


  1. This will well and truly be the last time, I hope.

  2. Huge agree on the unsong point about the 'read the room' stuff, that made me uncomfy too (tho I overally really like unsong). The combination of schizo-esque kabbalah dream-pun logic, computer coding puns, and the undercurrent of theodicey are what keep me enjoying it though.

    Also, Sisters of the Vast Black sounds dope as hell

    1. It was a solid read, despite the end quarter. If it had been just a little longer and kept to the initial theme it would have been really excellent.

  3. Give the bots what they want, Dan!

  4. I can solidly recommend China Mieville, especially Kraken. I like Perdido Street Station and the other Bas-Lag books, but i just love the insanity, punnery and pop-culture osmosis Kraken runs on.

  5. I can understand the struggle, though I only attract bots that want to tell me how to become a Vampire or where I can purchase a death curse.

  6. This post has a very Ouroboros-like quality to it. The bots go where they will, and we can consume our body to stop them. You should title all your book reviews as dispatches from Sisyphus.

    1. This is one of my favorite OSR metaposts.

    2. Sisyphus & Bouldy Present: Books We Read While Meg Was Busy Fighting / Snogging Prince Zagreus.

  7. Really, I'm a Chabon fan, but at this fourth point I'm just here for this.. could one call this memery? I want to see what the bots are gonna do.

  8. I feel you would enjoy Empress of Forever! Sci-fi, swashbuckling, space pirates, planet-destroying empresses, grey goo, all that good stuff and written gorgeously.